Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Student Input and Buy-In

"I'm a Social Studies teacher, not an English teacher."  I've heard that phrase since college days (which isn't that distant in the past), and every time I do I cringe at the concept of anyone thinking that it's not their job to help others improve upon their thinking and writing skills. Imagine a brain surgeon making a similar statement when their patient is hemorrhaging blood while addressing a skull fracture?  In many ways a social studies teacher is in the best position to help students who struggle with various skills associated with writing assignments.

This year my focus is addressing various skill sets with my students, and during the first week of each semester I ask them to make a personal assessment of areas that need improvement. In a non-threatening way I share a time in my past when my writing skills fell far short of personal expectations. In order to advance in my professional career, it was necessary for me to find ways to become a better writer. At that specific time I was well-removed from high school so there was no immediate help at hand. I recall sitting down at my Macintosh computer and typing sentences, then attempting to improve vocabulary and sentence structure, while being proficient with my time. In many ways it was hair-raising experience which I'll never forget. However, over time I became better at what I was doing and not with just writing, but all my language skills improved: reading, speaking and listening.

I introduced the topic of improved writing by revealing a listing of various components which are often associated with it: expand vocabulary, grammar, spelling, punctuation, more descriptives, elaborate, advance planning, more structure, capitalization, run-on sentences, use of commas & periods, write complete sentences, accurate sentence structure, write neatly, write more, comprehension, and write faster. I assure students that together we can work to improve individual performance with these skill sets, but I need them to self-assess and identify three specific areas they want to enhance. This itself makes a great writing prompt and I cue students to explain why they're making those selections.

After collecting their responses, within an Excel spreadsheet I assign point values of 3,2,1 (3=most important) and count the number of times each element is identified within that specific class. As I analyze this information I've discovered that different classes have diverse values for the aforementioned components. For example, one class identified spelling (19-8), expanded vocabulary (13-5), write neatly (13-5), and advance planning (8-5) as their featured goals. (19 is the total point value in that class, 8 is the number of times it was identified)  Another class ascertained expanded vocabulary (33-12), write neatly (21-9), write faster (16-10), and more descriptives (15-7). In addition their explanations offered further input on why they chose specific areas. For example, "write faster" was directly associated with note taking skills and "advance planning" for pulling ideas together when responding to essay questions.

An important element in this focus is sharing results with each class so they can better understand what I'm attempting to do in the coming weeks with various assignments. It's one thing to collect data, but another in implementing a game plan with proper execution. I may not achieve 100% buy-in from every student, but I've found that a great segment will cooperate once they sense someone is attempting to help them with their deficiencies. And indirectly I become a better teacher as a result...something that I value very seriously.

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